What is the main obstacle to taking action on climate change? Is it the vested interests in the oil industry and others who throw doubt on climate science whenever they can? Although climate scepticism is a significant factor and increasingly powerful, especially in the US. However, I would argue that there is an even bigger problem: the mass of ordinary people in the US, UK and other rich countries who don’t particularly question the facts of climate change but do not act on them, or even talk about about the issue, continuing to live their lives as if in a parallel world where we are not facing this appalling threat. This creates inertia, allowing governments to prioritise other issues and carry on with business as usual.
A recent book by Kari Marie Norgaard, “Living in Denial: Climate change, emotions, and everyday life”, addresses just this issue. She investigates how this social denial works in one community, a small town in Norway. Climate change is already affecting them, since winters where snows arrive months later than normal have an economic as well as a very visible impact. People do not question the science of climate change; contact with nature and the outdoors is highly valued; and people are often politically aware. Yet still they avoid discussing the issue of climate change amongst themselves. Why?
Norgaard argues that a combination of factors combine to make people unwilling to think about the issue; that ‘apathy’ arises not from lack of concern, but from a combination of concern, guilt and powerlessness. This denial does not just occur in the minds of individuals, but is socially created. There are unspoken rules of etiquette in society that determine what we talk about amongst ourselves and how one expresses emotions. When the future is frightening and any personal action seems futile; when people may be sensitive to perceived criticisms of their own lifestyle, then broaching the subject of climate change just means bringing down the mood of the conversation and making others uncomfortable.
‘”You know, there has been less snow this year than usual.” I nodded, but said nothing and waited to see what he would say next. He added, “You know that they have been talking about climate change and that it is the fault of humans.” I asked him what he thought about that. He gave a funny laugh and then said, “ The United States has been reluctant to decrease their emissions.” “Yes,” I agreed, “That is terrible.” The topic was a grim one. What more was there to say? We continued skiing in silence.
She describes climate change not being an accepted topic for conversation. “Raising the issue… made people uncomfortable; it was somehow not as polite as the questions I asked about local traditions.”
The desire not to upset with friends or acquaintances fits in well with the desire not to think about uncomfortable things oneself and a social pressure is created. This reinforces and validates each individual’s decision not to think or act.
What do we do in the face of social denial of climate change?
Can we shock people into taking climate change seriously? Overwhelm them with facts? To some extent this may make it harder to ignore, however ‘stop smoking’ campaigns, for example suggests this strategy has serious limitations. Just providing shocking information is often unsuccessful in encouraging people to give up smoking. Rather than change their behaviour, they rationalise it, use humour, make excuses. If giving up smoking seems too difficult, the last thing they want to do is go round thinking “I am increasing my risk of lung cancer and other unpleasant diseases.” So they change their thinking rather than their behaviour.
Scare campaigns only work if there is a clear ‘escape route’, for example “To avoid AIDS, use a condom.” On the face of it, there is no equivalent action an individual can take to stop climate change happening. Telling people that this is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced, so they must wash at 30 degrees and use low-energy lightbulbs, just doesn’t sound like a convincing message. And in trying to influence national, let alone international politics, one person can feel powerless, especially since the failure of the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen.
Perhaps the only way people can feel effective in this situation is in groups. The sight of people coming together to challenge climate-wrecking policies, as in Washington recently, can be inspiring. But groups of ‘activists’ or ‘environmentalists’ still remain separate from the rest of society. Dividing us are the social barriers to talking about climate change and also the weight of the constant message from media, advertising, government etc. that we can more or less carry on as we are (“Yes we are concerned about climate change but here’s an advert for cheap flights / a plan to raise the speed limit…”).
How do we break through these barriers and tell people how urgent the situation is without triggering the reaction “If it’s that bad, it’s so big there’s nothing I can do, I don’t want to think about it.” Or “I don’t want to feel guilty about flying/driving, so I don’t want to think about it.”
Especially when government refuses to lead the way, mass support for action on climate change is needed, and it starts with ordinary people having conversations. Can we enable people to start these conversations without having to worry about alienating their friends or colleagues?
Answers on a postcard please…